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Hamas tries to transform its image in seeking role in government

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Nashat Aqtash is a Palestinian pitchman with an unenviable challenge.

The 44-year-old public relations professor has been hired to help convince the world that Islamist militants best known for using suicide bombings as their main political tool actually have a kinder, gentler side.

Aqtash knows it's a daunting task. But he's convinced that he can persuade Israel and America that the Hamas leaders poised to play a major role in the new Palestinian government aren't wild-eyed terrorists, even though Hamas over the years has launched at least 42 attacks that have killed more than 310 Israelis.

"When you say Hamas in the West, it's a different image," Aqtash said Sunday while fingering his wooden prayer beads in a video production studio. "But hopefully within a few years they will understand that they are people just like us. They love to help their people. That's why they are joining this election."

Aqtash is a key behind-the-scenes player in Hamas' calculated campaign to transform its image as it prepares for the first time to move into the halls of Palestinian power. The group has selected a diverse group of candidates for this Wednesday's parliamentary election, including doctors, businessmen and women who have created a powerful "Change and Reform" coalition positioned to knock down the long-dominant Fatah party.

Polls show that Hamas candidates could win at least a third of the 132 seats in the new Palestinian Legislative Council. If everything falls its way in the final days, Hamas could actually win more seats than Fatah, giving it the power to select the new cabinet and delivering a crippling blow to the party formerly led by the late Yasser Arafat.

At key points in the campaign, Hamas has worked to soften its image. The group omitted from its campaign manifesto its long-held position that Israel has no right to exist. It emphasized social work that has helped win the group widespread support among the poor. And Hamas has sent veiled signals that it might even be willing to accept an Israeli state living side-by-side with a Palestinian nation.

"Two states is a very accepted solution now to everybody in Palestine," said Aqtash. "Who can destroy Israel? We cannot destroy Israel—and we don't want to destroy anybody. We want to gain some of the land given to us according to international resolutions."

With his pinstripe suit and a doctorate in media relations, Aqtash knows that Hamas needs to target its message to its audiences. To the poor, he said, Hamas should emphasize its social work. To the West, the group needs to tone down its rhetoric.

"The Western media works within a culture, and if you address them based on our culture it will look different," said Aqtash, who is being paid at least $40,000 for his advice. "Sometimes it looks stupid. Sometimes it looks terrorist."

Hamas leaders appear to be following this line of thinking.

At a packed indoor Hamas rally this past weekend in Ramallah, speaker after speaker played to the audience and vowed never to compromise with Israel or abandon the armed struggle.

"Hamas will never give up any part of Palestine," campaign manager Farhat Asad told thousands of chanting supporters who proclaimed themselves the bullets and Hamas their gun.

But, in an interview after the rally, Asad offered a softer message for an American audience.

"We do not want to attack you," said the teacher who was released last fall after spending nearly three years in an Israeli prison. "We seek your friendship. Do not be enemies of our project."

Not surprisingly, Hamas' attempts to present a softer side to the outside world is being greeted with skepticism. Israeli leaders are warning that they will not enter peace talks with any Palestinian cabinet that includes Hamas members unless the group disarms, renounces terrorism and explicitly accepts a two-state solution.

"No amount of public relations is going to change the fact that over the last few years, Hamas has been directly responsible for continued atrocities against innocent civilians," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "Hamas is anti-peace. Hamas' very essence is jihad, and no amount of spinning is going to change that fact."

Hamas also remains on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Aqtash, who teaches media and public relations at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said he personally believes in non-violent tactics. But he defended suicide bombings as a legitimate tool for Palestinians to use in their fight for an independent state.

"Suicide bombing is a method. It's a way to fight back if you have no F-16s," he said. "You have to put pressure on your enemy."

Even as they both defended the Palestinian right to continue fighting even if Hamas seizes political power this week, Aqtash and Asad urged America and Israel to accept the will of the people if they decide to reject Fatah.

"We compliment Bush's vision of establishing freedom for our people," said Asad. "But we want him to compliment us and support us in order to reach a stage of independence and freedom."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-HAMAS

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